Obama, Egypt, and Universal Values: Some History



The recent remarkable and revolutionary unrest in the Arab world and particularly in Egypt has created an awkward dilemma for Barack Obama and his administration. Listen to the following words from Obama in Chicago’s downtown Daley Plaza in the fall of 2002, when he started (with considerable help from a cadre of white ex-New Leftists and foundation friends in Chicago) his climb into the national political scene as an “antiwar” politician: “You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope…” (Applause)1


CAIRO 2009

“A Force for Stability and Good”


That was then.  Six and a half years later, in the spring of 2009, Obama stood in Cairo after having parlayed his false antiwar imagery[2] into what millions (or billions) around the world had been led to see as an historic and transformational rise to the pinnacle of American and global power. His “fighting” democratic rhetoric in Daley Plaza had been swept into the same historical dustbin as his 2003 claim (to the Illinois AFL-CIO, also in downtown Chicago) to support national health insurance on the Canadian, single-payer model.  The “change” and “hope” president had continued the basic United States Middle East policy of sustaining an anti-Iran alliance between Israel and so-called moderate Arab states. These “moderate” governments include Egypt ’s atrocious police-state dictatorship and Saudi Arabia ’s misogynist theocracy, which is perhaps the most reactionary government on earth. All of these states continued to be lavishly funded by the United States under Obama. Egypt has remained the world’s second leading recipient (after Israel ) of foreign aid from Washington , to the tune of $2 billion per year (including $1.3 billion in “military assistance) a year.3


During his much-ballyhooed Cairo speech and trip, Obama refused even to call Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak “authoritarian,” much less a dictator. He praised the Egyptian government as “a force for stability and good in the region.” He claimed to have been “struck” by the “wisdom and graciousness” of Saudi king Abdullah,4 the head of state in a nation that regularly practiced public beheadings. These comments were reasonably taken by many observers to signal a tacit endorsement of torture, martial law, secret police, and worse in the Middle East. Obama eloquently advanced standard platitudes in support of universal human rights and “governments that reflect the will of the people” and that “maintain [their] power through consent, not coercion; [that] respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; [that] must place the interests of [their] people and the legitimate workings of the political process above…party.”5 Obama said nothing, however, about the ways in which the Egyptian and Saudi and other “moderate,” U.S.-supported Middle East regimes harshly violated those principles  He made no far-reaching calls for political reform, much less for mass popular protest (without which authoritarian regimes have no incentive to change), reflecting his determination to tolerate repression on the part of Middle East allies willing to assist the U.S. on “regional issues” (the American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. support for Israel and its oppression of the Palestinians, and the U.S. campaign against Iran).  President Mubarak and other Middle Eastern authorities likely interpreted Obama’s reluctance to seriously advance reform as a green light to crack down on regime critics.


Clash of Religions/Civilizations


It was depressing for many who sought peace in the Middle East to hear Obama’s Cairo speech buy heavily into the language of an epic “clash of civilizations” between the Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds. As the excellent Left analyst Gilbert Achcar notes, “Obama in Cairo exclusively addressed the ‘Muslims,’ scattering his speech with quotes from the Koran, expressing a view of the world dominated by religion—and only Abrahamic religions at that, forgetting that in his own country there are millions who do not belong to any [sects] of Christianity, Judaism or Islam, not to mention those who refuse to belong to any religion at all..”6


Military Financing Without Conditions


Obama’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates – kept over from George W. Bush as a living symbol and agent of core bipartisan continuities in American imperial policy – met with Mubarak and his top military team in Cairo in May of 2009.  When he was asked by the media there if  U.S. military aid to that country was linked to human rights, Gates answered that the “position of the (Obama) administration is that as an example the foreign military financing that's in the (US) budget should be without conditions. And that is our sustained position.”  As the Asian Tribune recently reported, Gates’ current boss (Obama) has been less interested in the advance of democracy in Egypt than his previous boss (George W. Bush):


“In its first year, the Obama administration cut funding for democracy and governance programming in Egypt by more than half, from $50 million in 2008 to $20 million in 2009. The level of funding for civil society programs and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) was cut disproportionately, from $32 million to only $7 million… the Bush administration slashed economic aid to Egypt in the 2009 budget but kept the funding for democracy and governance programs constant, while Obama cut funding to those programs in an effort to make the cuts more proportional and under pressure from the American embassy in Cairo.” 


To “Take Some of The Passion Out”


Jon Alterman, a State Department Middle East advisor under George W. Bush, offered an interesting perspective on the unchanged bipartisan and imperial continuities beneath and beyond Obama’s trip to the Arab world.  As Alterman explained in matter-of-imperial-fact terms at a forum in Washington, “Our policies are a reflection of our interests and our alliances and while they may change moderately from administration to administration, the underlying interests are simply not allied with the policies that many Muslims around the world would like to see the United States pursue. We’re going to have to agree to disagree, and that’s the first task for the President—to frame U.S. policy in a way that takes some of the passion out of the widespread hostility for the United States [emphasis added].” 7 Obama’s real task, Alterman felt, wasn’t to change U.S. policy in the Middle East . It was rather to take the dangerous sting out of how those policies were perceived across the predominantly Muslim and Arab region. It was about public relations and re-branding.


2011: The Mubarak Brand Spoils


Here we are a year and a half later. The alienated, drastically under-employed and hopeless Arab and Egyptian youth that Obama claimed to care for in 2002 have led an epic outpouring of protest that challenges the power of the arch-authoritarian governments the U.S. continues to bankroll and militarily equip under Obama. Contrary to the president’s religion-focused clash- of- civilizations rhetoric, the struggles in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere are not being waged by and for Muslim extremism but in the name of the modern, secular- democratic values that Washington claims to support and embody (notwithstanding its captivity to its own unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire).


Nothing could be more disingenuous than U.S, Scretary of State Hillary Clinton's response last week when

CNN's Candy Crowley asked her if the administration was on the side of Mubarak or the protesters.Clinton said she was for a "third choice," the "Egyptian people" – as if the millions engaging in a mass popular uprising were not legitimate Egyptians. "We are on the side, as we have been for more 30 years," Clinton added, "of a democratic Egypt that provides both political and economic rights to its people." But Mubarak's U.S.-funded Egypt has brought neither: roughly 40 percent of the population struggles to get by on less than $2 a day, and political dissent has been regularly crushed by Mubarak's dictatorship.


Asian Tribune reporter Daya Gamage notes that the U.S. arrangement with the Mubarak regime allows the Egyptian armed forces  to “purchase military equipment either through the U.S. military or directly from U.S. defense contractors, and it can do so on credit. In 2006, the GAO noted that Egypt had entered some defense contracts in advance of—and in excess of—its military assistance appropriations.” Gamage notes that leading U.S. military firms profit handsomely from the relationship, helping minimize the relevance of official human rights rhetoric: "American defense contractors overwhelmingly benefit from this aid arrangement. Contractors including BAE Systems, General Dynamics, General Electric, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin have all done business with the Egyptian government through relationships facilitated by high-powered Washington lobbyists….So, who’s worried about human rights, good governance and justice in Egypt?" 8


So why would the empire’s new clothes Barack Obama and his administration now be pressing Mubarak behind the scenes for a rapid exit?9  Insofar as Obama now appears to be cautiously willing to appear to partially side with the people in the streets in Cairo and Alexandria, the primary administration motive is of course imperial-strategic. It’s all about “taking the passion” and sting of out real and potential opposition to the Superpower headquartered in Washington. It arises from the fear that the American and Obama brand will be irrevocably poisoned in Egypt and the Middle East if the U.S. appears to have stayed closely tied to the end with a doomed and vicious dictator. At the same time, the administration is certain to strictly qualify any support it might be seen as giving the people in the Arab streets for fear of helping reinforce a new wave of democratic national independence across the oil-rich Middle East, whose petroleum reserves are seen by American planners as too critical for U.S. power for them to be controlled by the region’s actual residents. The White House is in a classic dllemmna, walking the tightrope strung between its rhetorical attachment to "universal human rights" and the United States' longstanding imperial ambitions. As Nicole Colson and Alan Maas note on Socialistworker.org: "The U.S. can't afford a revolution against Mubarak that leads to more revolutions. But it also can't afford to be seen as defending a tyrant if his downfall is inevitable anyway….That's why Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's loyal intelligence chief and now vice president, is so important for the U.S. The deal that U.S. officials are cooking up would put a 'caretaker' government in power under Suleiman and two military officials" (http://socialistworker.org/2011/02/04/end-us-support-for-mubarak).


 But then, American foreign policy has never supported democracy overseas for other than contingent, highly qualified and temporary reasons. Beneath its claim to represent and advance universal democratic values, Washington has long sponsored, protected, and equipped authoritarian and dictatorial regimes that it has seen as favorable to the U.S. corporate sector’s economic interests and the American military’s related global designs. When those regimes collapse under the weight of popular rebellion the U.S. never really wanted to see, Washington does the best it can to identify itself with and divide and control and co-opt the opposition and contain the change within policy and political contours consistent with U.S. global hegemony.10 Think Cory Aquino and Reagan and recall Jean Bertrand Aristide’s Washington-controlled return to Haiti under Bill Clinton. And remember Obama’s substantive complicity in the business-military coup that overthrew the democratically elected president of Honduras (Manuel Zelaya) in the same month that the president spoke in Cairo . Obama opposed that coup in his official words; his actual deeds were a very different thing.  The trick for the White House is to try to identify itself with an illusion of change that cloaks the persistence of the old imperial relationship.  That’s what’s happening right now with Washington and Egypt as the Obama administration realizes that the Mubarak brand has spoiled and needs to be pulled from the shelf to be replaced with a new and improved product standing in the same relationship of imperial dependency. 


Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007; Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York: Routledge, 2005); Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010).  Street is currently completing a book titled Crashing the Tea Party, co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio. He can be reached at [email protected]




1 U.S. Liberals, “Barack Obama’s Stirring 2002 Speech Against the Iraq War,” October 2002, at http://usliberals.about.com/od/extraordinaryspeeches/a/Obama2002War.htm


2 For a comprehensive critique of candidate Obama’s antiwar credentials, see Paul Street , Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics ( Boulder , CO : Paradigm, 2008), Chapter 4: “How Antiwar? Barack Obama , Iraq , and the Audacity of Empire.”


3 Daya Gamage, “$2 Billion-a-Year Military Aid from U.S. to Egypt at the expense of human rights/democracy,” Asian Tribune, February 4, 2011 at



4 Michael Brull, “Obama Just Updated U.S. Double-Speak,” New Matilida, June 11, 2009, at http://newmatilda.com/print/6154


5 “The President's Speech in Cairo : A New Beginning,” June 4, 2009 at http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/NewBeginning/


6 Gilbert Achcar, “Obama’s Cairo Speech,” ZNet, June 6, 2009, at www.zcomm.org/znet/v:iewArticle/21635 .


7 Jon Alterman quoted in Michael Scherer, “Obama Seeks to Win Muslim Hearts and Minds,” Time, June 3, 2009, atwww.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1902334,00.html


8 Gamage, “$2 Billion-a-Year Military Aid.”


9 Helen Cooper and Mark Landler, “As an Ally Balks, the White House is Said to Press for a Rapid Exit,” New York Times, February 4, 2011, A1, A8.


10  For a classic, far-reaching radical analysis of Washington’s role in the management and containment of change in developing (formerly known as Third World)in connection with popular rebellions against dictators the U.S. previously backed, see William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy – Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1996)

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